Pakistan, North West Frontier Province, Gandharan region
A Bodhisattva
Kushan period, c.2nd/3rd century

150.5 x 53.3 x 19 cm (59 1/4 x 21 x 7 1/2 in.)
Promised Gift of James W. and Marilynn Alsdorf, 198.1997

Bodhisattvas are beings who have chosen not to enter nirvana (state of eternal bliss or enlightenment) to rescue other beings from samsara (the cycle of rebirth, or reincarnation). They act as the eternal helpers of the Buddha, embodying his boundless mercy and compassion. This bodhisattva has a plain halo, which indicates his spiritual aspect. His other adornments are sumptuous, symbolizing the bodhisattva's earthly connection and revealing to seekers of enlightenment that he has postponed his own spiritual reward. Originally, this image may have stood in the niche of a stupa or temple. It probably was polychromed or gilded and stood on a base, the front of which was carved with a scene of worship.

The Gandharan style of Buddhist visual art developed between the first century B.C. and the seventh century A.D. in what is now northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. The style had its origins in Greco-Roman culture: Classical influences appear in the sculpted features of this bodhisattva's face and his flowing, toga-like robes. Rulers of the Kushan Empire, which included Gandhara and lasted from the first to the third centuries A.D. when this sculpture was made, maintained contacts with Rome through trade. Kushan coins show Greek, Roman, Persian, Hindu, and Buddhist deities and bear inscriptions in adapted Greek letters. Through trade and missionary routes, the Kushans were instrumental in spreading Buddhism to central Asia and China.